Smashing the silos between HR and other business departments

From the start of the pandemic in March 2020, almost half of the UK working population worked from home. One year later, the roadmap out of lockdown is well underway, with vaccines rolling out at an impressive rate, and organisations planning their post-lockdown workplace strategy.

This demands a joined-up approach from organisations looking to take advantage of permanent homeworking or hybrid work models. HR leaders will need to work closely with their colleagues in other functions, like real estate, facilities and IT, to shape the employee experience. And vice versa. 

The need for better collaboration has been growing for some time. Macro trends like globalisation and digitisation combined to expand the physical, and often psychological, distance between colleagues. Many HR departments now find themselves working on separate continents to the IT teams developing the tools they need.

To prepare for the new normal workplace, organisations should make a conscious effort to tackle the silos that stand in the way of greater cross-team collaboration. Real estate and facilities teams will create great post-pandemic workplaces, but only by working closely with HR to understand employee needs.

In turn, HR leaders managing employee expectations must discover from their real estate and facilities colleagues the possibilities and limitations of workplace changes. Similarly, if a significant number of employees work virtually, HR will need to collaborate closely with IT to develop the right workplace apps and communications tools. 

Siloed thinking

Research suggests that business leaders blame silos for an uneven distribution of knowledge across their companies, less confidence in technology investments, and challenges around innovation and creativity.

The main problem that occurs if departments work in silos is that they don’t share information. Sometimes people don’t trust colleagues with their knowledge, or they may want to preserve a sense of power or mystique associated with their skills. This mentality can breed distrust and miscommunication, with a detrimental impact on productivity and the ability to innovate. 

A factor driving silo mentality, particularly in functional teams, is that they are led and staffed by people from similar backgrounds. For example, people in HR or IT trained in their specialism and have a shared language and understanding about the issues and challenges that they face.

As such they operate as a ‘tribe’, with a shared sense of belonging which supports team cohesion but can be problematic if it inhibits their ability to engage other functional professionals (or parts of the business) and understand their worlds.

Another aspect is that the objectives of departments such as HR, IT and facilities usually relate to things that they can deliver and control, but do not necessarily recognise or reward cooperation or collaboration with other groups.

By dismantling existing silos, we can create a bigger tribe, ideally connecting everyone to a shared purpose and set of objectives. Without shared objectives, people focus on their own targets and outcomes – as that’s how they are measured.

To create the bigger tribe, we must get to know one another, make an effort to understand the worlds that people operate within and build trust so that information, expertise and skills flow across the organisation unimpeded.   

Breaking down barriers 

AWA’s research into what makes knowledge-based teams tick has revealed that factors like social cohesion, trust and information sharing are crucial to their effectiveness. These factors potentially suffer in a virtual or hybrid environment, so need special focus.  

This is why solid relationships are critical. Shared projects (such as the creation of a solid hybrid working programme) present an excellent opportunity to work together and on behalf of the core business to deliver a new future. 

Some organisations are embracing a new role that merges previously siloed disciplines. A 'chief workplace officer' (CWO), connects HR to the other workplace focused disciplines. This role can help facilitate understanding between the functions, building bridges and creating a shared level of understanding behind a shared purpose.

Breaking down silos and creating trust and cohesion between departments are vital for organisational success. Working with colleagues outside your team is one of the most effective ways to build social cohesion and generate success in a new post-pandemic workplace.

Karen Plum is director of research & development at Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA)